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The polluter of Paradise Cove 

Multimillionaire Steven Dahlberg let sewage into the Pacific for years. His modest fine: $54,000

Wednesday, Dec 16 2009
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For Steven Dahlberg, owner of the Paradise Cove Mobile Home Park, decades of allowing polluted runoff and leaking sewage into the Pacific Ocean paid off with an early Christmas present. In a season of shopping for discounts, Dahlberg just got a sweet markdown from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appointees on the Southern California Regional Water Quality Control Board: about 97 percent.

Paradise Cove is one of the most scenic waterfront sites in California, a relatively undeveloped gem tucked away on the Malibu coastline, which is perfect for swimming, surfing and filming. Thousands of films and ads have been shot there, from Gidget in the 1960s to The Rockford Files in the ’70s and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.

But Paradise Cove also has a dirty secret: Locals have for decades called it “Parasite Cove,” with its chronic problem, which they attribute mainly to mobile home–park owner Dahlberg’s Kissel Co. and the environmental impact of the firm’s properties. Surfers, swimmers and others talk about getting chronic coughs, runny noses and staph infections after braving the Paradise Cove waters.

click to enlarge TED SOQUI - Skylar Peak, lifelong surfer: - “I don’t let my kids near the water.”
  • Ted Soqui
  • Skylar Peak, lifelong surfer: “I don’t let my kids near the water.”

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Dahlberg’s bluff-side mobile-home development has 257 units, some of which are old and primitive, with some located just 300 feet from the water’s edge, and many offering stunning million-dollar views.

According to water board officials, the development has caused a long history of pollution problems — specifically, raw fecal matter — that spill into the ocean and nearby creeks.

It has also been a frequent contributor to the infamous “Malibu stink” that locals know as the result of leaking septic tanks, upstream runoff and other pollution problems up and down the hilly coast. Last spring, 38 Malibu businesses were notified by the regional water board that they were violating wastewater-discharge permit requirements — failing, like Dahlberg, to control leaking septic tanks and other untreated runoff.

Dahlberg inherited the “resort” from his parents and runs what appears to be a highly lucrative family business. Its slogan: “Paradise without the airfare.”

But documents filed by the water board state that Kissel Co. allowed 17 raw-sewage spills, totaling 2,000 gallons, into Ramirez Creek and the ocean between April 2007 and July 2008, disregarded board orders to construct and operate an effective wastewater-treatment plant according to prescribed schedules, and failed to submit groundwater-monitoring reports.

Those troubles followed years of resistance by Dahlberg to repeated efforts by his tenants, former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti and environmental groups that fought to make him clean things up during the 1990s.

In 2001, he finally agreed to build a modern wastewater-treatment system within three years — but this proved to be a delaying tactic. Dahlberg has spent most of this decade resisting, as tenants and environmental groups pushed him step after step to fulfill agreements he had made to resolve criminal charges of pollution and to settle a class-action civil lawsuit filed by a group of his tenants. Dahlberg did not return a succession of phone calls and e-mails from L.A. Weekly requesting his comment over several days.

Dahlberg’s strategy of ignoring pressure from the government, the environmentalists and the locals seemed to be paying off — until 2007, when The Malibu Times ran a picture of raw sewage running down the central path of the mobile-home park.

The photo quickly went viral on the Internet. Pollution as an abstract concept is one thing, but to see it up close and raw, as if world-famous Malibu were a Third World country lacking modern plumbing, is a hot topic with online viewers.

Last spring, with the new, $5.7 million treatment plant Dahlberg was forced to build finally up and running years later than scheduled, and after years of environmental damage, the water board finally seemed to show some grit: It tentatively ruled that Kissel Co. would have to pay a fine of $1.65 million because it had failed to meet compliance deadlines in the water board’s time-schedule order.

Environmentalists say Dahlberg has more than sufficient resources to pay such a fine: The mobile-home park sits on a 72-acre expanse of extremely valuable coastal property, with more than 200 units paying lease charges to Dahlberg.

“Raw sewage has flowed down driveways and streets, threatening human health and water quality,” says Deborah Smith, chief deputy executive officer for the water board. “Not meeting deadlines for constructing and effectively operating new facilities to protect water quality is unacceptable.”

Heal the Bay President Mark Gold was “ecstatic” at the news this year of the stiff proposed fine. “I’ve been with Heal the Bay for 20 years, and this issue has been discussed for over a dozen of them,” Gold says. “People make mistakes and you can be lenient, but when you have a chronic pollution problem that’s not addressed and has the potential to harm public health, a strong message needs to be sent.”

But six months after the enforcement hammer was raised, the governor’s appointees on the regional water board — Mary Ann Lutz, Madelyn Glickfield, Steve Blois, Francine Diamond and Maria Mehranian — blinked at a November hearing. Local surfers, swimmers and environmentalists were outraged when board members voted to whittle down the proposed fine of $1.65 million to a modest $54,000 and change.

“It’s a joke,” Point Dume resident and lifelong Paradise Cove swimmer, surfer and diver Skylar Peak tells L.A. Weekly. “Dahlberg does whatever he wants to and he always gets away with it. I don’t understand why he can pollute our oceans and not have to pay a price that hurts. ... Fifty-four grand is a joke to this guy.”

Gold, meanwhile, went from being ecstatic to outraged. “Unfortunately, this decision says that pollution pays. He missed deadlines, broke promises and got away with it — and saved himself more than a million and a half dollars in the process.”

The final decision by the water board was the result, Gold said, of failures by the board’s staff to issue cease-and-desist and abatement orders, along with the time-schedule orders for completing the treatment plant and other mitigations. That failure by the water board staff made the time schedule orders unenforceable. So far, the water board has kept mum on how its staff blew such a routine piece of paperwork.

“It’s important that people understand that there’s no dispute on the facts of the case here,” Gold says. “This is like a serial felon getting off on a technicality.”

Tracy Egoscue, executive officer of the water board, declined to discuss the staff’s administrative performance, which allowed Dahlberg to escape serious punishment. “In case there’s an appeal to the state water board, the regional board doesn’t want to comment publicly,” says board spokesman Steve Cain.

Gold says Heal the Bay has decided in recent days to appeal the decision, even though such appeals rarely succeed.

Peak, the well-known Malibu waterman, says the regional water board’s mystifying lack of oversight just adds to his frustration with Dahlberg and the callous way he has treated the Pacific Ocean and nearby creek at the unique site.

“I still don’t let my kids go in the water there. It’s always murky there, right where the creek comes out,” Peak says. “What I really don’t understand is why someone like Dahlberg, who surfs himself, wouldn’t do everything in his power to make the ocean clean. ... The only answer I can venture is greed and money.”

Roger Goldengay, the former president of the Paradise Cove Homeowners Association who led a successful class-action lawsuit against Kissel Co., says he is uniquely qualified to answer that question after living there for 20 years with his wife, Dr. Carol Otis, who worked in the Malibu Critical Care Center and treated sick surfers and swimmers.

They say they left for Portland, Oregon, in 2000, because they were so frustrated by Dahlberg’s refusal to fix the pollution problems at what should have been an idyllic location. The key evidence in the lawsuit was videotape Goldengay took of children walking through raw sewage.

“He’s vindictive, malicious, and he retaliates against anybody who tries to oppose him,” Goldengay declares of Dahlberg. “I’m a landlord myself, and if I behaved like this, I’d be in jail. Here in Portland, they’ll arrest you if you let storm water run off your property. But in Malibu they just let Steve Dahlberg get away with putting shit in the ocean for all those years he stalled on building a treatment plant.”

Note: Story is updated with Heal the Bay's decision to appeal the water board's decision.

Reach the writer at paulteetor@verizon.net

Reach the writer at paulteetor@verizon.net

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